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U.S. President Barack Obama pauses before he delivers the commencement address for the 2012 graduating class at Barnard College in New York May 14, 2012. (LARRY DOWNING/LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)
U.S. President Barack Obama pauses before he delivers the commencement address for the 2012 graduating class at Barnard College in New York May 14, 2012. (LARRY DOWNING/LARRY DOWNING/REUTERS)

Social issues take centre-stage after Obama's gay marriage declaration Add to ...

Will it be Greece or gay marriage?

As the American presidential election campaign enters the serious phase, social issues seem to have taken a front seat in the debate over who best can lead the country into an almost certainly tumultuous future.

Less than 24 hours after Barack Obama delivered the commencement address at Barnard College, urging the all-women graduating class to “fight for a seat at the head of the table,” the President appeared Tuesday on The View to tout his support for gay marriage.

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“This is going to be a big contrast in the campaign,” Mr. Obama told host Barbara Walters, noting that his presumptive Republican rival Mitt Romney favours a federal constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.

The Obama team has made social policy a key plank of its campaign as it seeks to mobilize the liberal Democratic base and plant doubt in voters’ minds about how Republican control of Congress and the Oval Office would take the country backward.

Economic issues have played second fiddle in the past week following Mr. Obama’s move to endorse gay marriage and request top billing at Barnard, bumping New York Times editor Jill Abramson, who had been scheduled to give the commencement speech.

The American focus on social issues contrasts with the political tumult in Europe, as Greece faces new elections that promise to roil global markets for weeks. Sooner or later, U.S. politics will reflect that.

The Obama campaign's social policy push comes as the House of Representatives prepares to vote this week on an extension of the Violence Against Women Act. The Republican-controlled House is expected to pass a version of the bill that removes protections for gay and transgender victims of domestic abuse that were included in a bill passed by the Senate.

This follows a three-month-long debate over the Obama administration’s policy of requiring most religious-based employers to include free contraception coverage in employee health care plans. Democrats have framed GOP opposition to the policy as part of a so-called “Republican war on women.”

Still, a CBS News/New York Times poll released Tuesday showed that almost three-quarters of respondents think the economy and federal budget deficit will be the biggest factors in determining who they vote for in the November election.

The Obama campaign has no illusions that it can change that fundamental reality. Mr. Obama conceded as much on The View. And by election day, economic issues – including the year-end expiry of massive income tax cuts passed under George W. Bush – promise to consume Congress and the electorate.

Still, the Obama campaign believes that social issues can have an influence on the election outcome, especially in mobilizing traditional Democratic constituencies that have so far shown less enthusiasm about supporting Mr. Obama than they did in 2008.

Indeed, there has been marked upsurge in enthusiasm among gay rights advocates, including a big increase in donations to the Obama campaign, since the President’s endorsement of same-sex marriage. On Tuesday, Mr. Obama headlined a New York fundraiser hosted by openly gay singer Ricky Martin.

At the same time, however, Mr. Obama has taken heat from black evangelical preachers, who have likened his endorsement of gay marriage to “supporting sin.” In states like North Carolina, which Mr. Obama won by a mere 15,000 votes in 2008, ambivalence among black voters could swing the election in Mr. Romney’s favour.

Overall, the CBS/NYT poll showed Mr. Romney leading Mr. Obama by 46 per cent to 43 per cent. A month ago, the two were tied with 46 per cent each.

The poll’s most surprising finding was the two percentage point lead it gave Mr. Romney over Mr. Obama among women, reversing the seven point edge the President held last month. Most other polls gave Mr. Obama a double-digit lead among women.

But Obama campaign officials questioned the CBS/NYT poll’s accuracy and attacked its methodology, which involved re-interviewing respondents from last month’s poll.

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